On arctic evenings in Wisconsin, the West Allis Ice Rink glimmers in the middle distance beside Interstate 94, chimerical and almost transparent, like a winter mirage that flickers momentarily in a cloud of windswept breath.

Each day thousands of people flash past on the eight-lane highway near Milwaukee looming just a hundred yards away.

There, in twilight, brightly dressed children skate rhythmic, hypnotic laps around a dowdy, dilapidated oval which stands abjectly amid reon signs and smokestacks.

This bleak Benchamite version of a Currier-and-Ives print is the home of the U.S. Speed Skating Team, the best winter Olympic squad in American history.

Here Eric and Beth Heiden, brother and sister, 21 and 20, have wrought themselves into great, if annoynous, world champions. Clean, hard, cold and pure as ice, they are as sharp and uncompromising as the blade of a racing skate.

For 13 years, they have driven themselves, in seclusion, pursuing an ascetic ideal in an orphaned sport.

Yet the Heidens also have known for a long time that during February 1980 they would probably become the most suddently celebrated pair of people in America.

Even those who hadn't heard of them before the Lake Placid games will soon know them as intimately as the megaton flash-bulb of fame will allow.

Speed skating has nine gold medals -- five for men, four for women. If the form of the 1979 World Championships holds, the Heidens will win all nine.

The world will bear gifts to the Heidens' door in Madison, Wis. And they, if form holds again, will politely but firmly turn the world away. No post-Olympic symphony of dollars is being orchestrated here.

Because their parents are educated, affluent and adamantly strident in running interference, the yound Heidens have grown up bright, unaffected and so fresh that they seem radically innocent beside jaded celebrity athletes.

Nonetheless, the minions of mammon will have a hard time leaving the Heidens alone. They are eye-catching, mass-market show-stoppers: sibling champions as opposite as fire and ice.

Eric, is an all-American 6-foot-1, 190-pound mesomorph who is handsome, tousle-haired, utterly relaxed, with a devilish, almost Bohemian, touch to his prankishness.

"I guess I'm a regular person," Eric says. "I don't need Ex-Law or anything." He is pared down to a volatile essence of muscle. If he flexed too fast, he might explode.

"A thoroughbred horse on the outside with a subborn mule inside," Beth Heiden describes her brother.

Beneath the almost freezing calm that has taken him to three consecutive World Championships, there simmers a hidden quality: daredevilry.

"Eric would do anything in this world if it caught his fancy," says a family friend, "even if it killed him."

While climbing in the Alps last November, Heiden heard rocks falling. Instead of feeling fear, he was curious.

"I looked up," he grimaces, "and a rock as big as a grapefruit hit me right between the eyes and broke my nose."

Undaunted, Heiden tried the bobsled run in an Italian town, but neglected to learn that the course spit the sled out into the city's main street at 50 mph.

On race days the street is roped off. When Heiden and a buddy made the run, they exited at a mile a minute into rush-hour traffic. "It was exciting for a few seconds," says Heiden.

Heiden has only one celebration planned after the Olympics. Then, when a broken leg or fractured skull can no longer steal his Olympic gold, Heiden says, "I want to skate down a luge run."

Has anyone ever gone down a luge run on skates?

"No," he says.

Is it possible?

"No one knows."

Could you kill yourself?

"It's conceivable."

How fast would you be going?

"That," he says, "is what interests me."

If Eric is a swashbuckler, then Beth is an animated, bubbing, 5-foot-1, 105-pound ectomorph who seems like a hank of nerves, skin, bone, brain and long blowing hair.

Nothing about Eric is a mystery. He is proudly self-evident. Everything about Beth is hidden and inexplicable. She seems like a puff of winter smoke blowing around the rink, a pale blue wisp that might easily disappear.

"She is a sparrow," says Eric, "with a tiger hidden inside her."

The sparrow is easy to see. The tiger is well-concealed.

In a sport where huge legs, like Eric's 29-inch thighs of stone, have been a common denominator of champions for 50 years, Beth Heiden is more than an anomaly. She almost defies the speed-skating laws of physics. i

With the stroking pace of a hummingbird and the precision of an engineer (which is her major at the University of Wisconsin), she has perfected a style her sport never knew existed.

From the beginning, when she was 7 and followed Eric onto the frozen lakes of Madison to "skate all over for all day," Beth Heiden has always had a fascinating rivalry with this huge creature a foot taller and nearly a hundred pounds heavier than she.

On the surface, the 20-year-old, who still looks like a little girl with pigtails and Charlie the Tuna watch, loves to tease and one-up her brother.

"I can outrun him. Anything longer than nine miles, I can beat him," she grins. "He has to carry a lot of extra muscle."

Eric has long had a dream of winning a gold medal in a second Olympic sport -- cycling or hockey. But it is Beth who has already taken giant steps in that direction, winning the U.S. Women's National Cycling Championship in 1979.

At other times the sister's emotions seem as lovingly coiled around her brother's fortunes as Louisa May Alcott could ask.

"When we compete, we seem to be linked. I remember how much weight it took off me when I heard Eric had won the World [Championship]. It's like part of me had already won. Later, I went out and won the World Championship, too," she says.

"People don't believe the intuition I have about him. Maybe it's because we're together so much," Beth says, thinking of the 150-mile round trip they drive each day from Madison to West Allis now that both are on a year's leave from the University of Wisconsin to train for Lake Placid.

"At the World Sprints I was standing in a turn as Eric started the 500 meters. I told the girl next to me, 'Eric will slip right here, but he won't fall. And he'll win.'

"And he did."

Yet others will always think they see a darker, unconscious side to Beth, the small flame burning so determinedly in the large shadow.

"She's very jealous of her brother," says Leah Poulos Mueller, 28, twotime World Sprint champion and Beth's prime competition in the two shortest Olympic distance. "She can be world champion, but he's the greatest ever. He'll probably be untouchable at the Olympics. She'll risk being called a disappointment.

"She's in the difficult position of defining her identity in terms of an older brother who keeps setting unreachable standards just a year or two before she gets there."

Sometimes Beth even seems pensive about the years she has devoted to skating -- a decision Eric made in an instant.

"My senior year in high school, I visited Dartmouth, and it seemed like the neatest place," she says. "All their coaches were telling the sports I could play. I had a very hard time deciding.

"I couldn't go to Dartmouth and still devote enough time to skating to make the Olympics. So," she says with no attempt to hide her continuing ambivalence, "then I just ended up staying home and skating."

To get a feeling for the Heidens, to sense the weight of their achievements and their cost, it is necessary to go to the one place where the reluctant, almost reclusive, champions can relax among equals and be most nearly themselves: West Allis.

This rugged and bereft old rink, maintained on a volunteer shoestring and always in danger of terminal disrepair, is the Mecca of U.S. speed skating.

It has to be, Norway, a country the size of Wisconsin, has 11 refrigerated rinks of Olympic size. America, until Lake Placid's was completed, had one: West Allis.

Many Americans Olympians must take vows of poverty. Yet few are as proud of their threadbare hardihood as the 40 or so skaters who congregate here, many year-round.

"These are the worst conditions of any training site in the world," says Eric Heiden with the undisguised hairshirt-pride and contempt-for-luxury that runs, like a catechetical precept, throughout the speed-skating subculture.

"We breathe fumes from factories and cars that are close enough to hit with a snowball. The wind's so bad it knocks you off your feet in the turns, because our [windbreak] fences are pathetic.

"And, oh yeah," adds Heiden with a sarcastic grin, "our ice is rather slow. You see, it has cement in it. Wind blows particles from the cement plant next door."

On this rink, the greatest national team in history has been born and reared. The current U.S. squad, led by the Heidens, won 27 of the 30 gold medals at 1979's major international meets.

No other country, since international championships began in 1889, has ever approached such dominance. At European meets, Russian and East German skaters tease the U.S. team and pry at them to discover their classified training sites and secret techniques.

When the Americans tell their tales of a windy rink full of cement and carbon monozide, where the scenery includes sign that say "car Wash" and "hot Wax," and the most conspicuous landmark is not an alp but the Wauwatosa water tower, the Russians laught nervously and refuse to believe.

"The Russians ask us: 'Where are your personal coaches? Where are your trainers and team doctors? Where is your training equipment?'" says Peter Mueller, a '76 gold medalist at Innsbruck.

"They come from a world of ultimate regimentation. To them we look like free spirits and hippies and vagabonds."

Russia claims 500,000 competitive speed skaters, thousands of them kept as state athletes. America has, at most, 4,000 speed skaters.

"We tell the Russians," said Mueller, "that we have no doctors and trainers and individual coaches. At every meet, we smile and tell them the same thing. 'We're just here . . .to beat you.'

"And we always do."

The American secret is not in technique, but in temperament.

On a frigid winter morning with a wind-chill factor below zero, Eric Heiden rubs vaseline on his face. Inside his skin-tight uniform he puts a layer of newspaper to delay frost bite.

Heiden looks a bit drained, his eyes glazed. He and his teammates have returned from six weeks of European competition. Jet lag and strep throat have run through the team. Heiden's temperature is higher than 101.

"This is the low point of the year," explains Mueller. "We're all sick and disoriented.

"In europe or Russia the skaters are pampered heroes. They would not dream of training on a day like this. They would have a massage and a sauna and go to bed.

"We train through everything. Our only rule is go until you can't go anymore. Then go some more."

This is the day for the 10,000-meter workouts for the men, the longest and most grueling race in skating.

Heiden ignores the cold, the wind, the lousy rink conditions, the jet lag, the fever. Bent over like a dash man in track lunging for the tape, Heiden strokes endlessly around the 400-meter rink, hands behind his back in the straightaways, then digging with one arm on the turns.

Lap after lap, Heiden cranks out times that are just a fraction off the world record.

This is skating's fundamental and perniciously will-sapping war -- the battle against the stopwatch. Because racing is done in pairs, not a pack, foes seldom duel each other skate-to-skate. Time is all.

In extremis, when fatigue and freeze attack, that unseen clock takes on the features of a human face and the skater suddenly recognizes his enemy. And it is always himself.

So the worst days are best for training. If the soul has muscles, they must be strengthened too. Once, Heiden won although his left arm was frozen behind him. When the time came to pump for the finish with both arms, one was numb, unmovable and hammerlocked. But he had never noticed.

By the time he realized, it was too late to lose.

"You couldn't do this for anyone but yourself," says a 19-year-old skater named Klaus Reichman, who has left his New York home and taken a leave from college to come here, to be the next Eric Heiden.

"A professional athlete -- someone like Pete Rose -- feeds off the pressure and the crowds and the energy and expectation that's around him," Reichman says. "It stokes him. It's the absolute opposite here.

"This must be the purest of all sports.

"When an animal is scared, its face changes," says Reichman. "In an athlete, it's the same. In competition, I've seen Eric's and Beth's faces change. For a moment they're transformed. They go beyond themselves.

"That's what we're reaching for -- the moment when we're pure animal."

A few sports, where conditioning reaches an almost hallucinatory level, have what amounts to a private mystical theology.

Prize fighters, in their sweaty, claustrophobic and corrupt underworld, talk a kind of battered, mysticial jive. Marathon runners, so seemingly emaciated that they could pass for those early Christian ascetics who tried to tame the body through mortification, have a private language that delineates all the changed states of consciousness caused by their regimen.

American speed skaters rhapsodize in the same disconcerting way, trying to explain experiences that they can't touch.

"You get a special whistling feeling in your ears," Mueller says. "Everything inside you and outside you seems perfect. When it's there, you wish you could keep it forever."

Even the Heiden's mother feels it. "The Europeans and Russians are the children of the Army or miners. They skate their way to a better life. Their thought is, 'God, get me out of my plight.'

"As long as skating keeps them prosperous, they're satisfied," she says, then pauses. "That's the difference between their skaters and ours. Their motivating force is not the esthetic."

It is necessary to sense the power of skating's thrall to appreciate the aura of almost defiant innocence about the Heidens. After what the ice has given them, the earth can sometimes seem poor. No wonder the gifts of fame seem tarnished to them, and easy to refuse. In their present state of finely honed athletic grace, the Heidens seem to carry with them two special and, perhaps, temporary qualities.

They bristle with that sort of spontaneous energy that William Blake said constituted "eternal delight."

Also, they have about then some of that animal dignity and certainty that moved Rilke to write, "The beast is free and has its death always behind it . . . and when it walks it goes toward eternity . . . His existence is infinite to him, ungrasped, without a glimpse at his condition, pure as his outward gaze."

Anyone with a feeling for athletic portraits must sense that one giant and central piece has been left out of the Heiden mosaic. Even mystics must have a master.

Where is that driven, supremely organized, borderline-neurotic force that we find at the back of many champions?

Her name is Dianne Holum. An Olympic gold medalist in 1972, she not only coaches the U.S. Speed Skating Team but, in a sense, has created it out of her dogged, patient and nurturing will.

"Old skaters never die, they just lose their edge," goes the pun in speed skating. For the Heidens, Holum is their whetstone, their constant source of a fresh edge. Around her, it is impossible to be dull.

In Europe, where he is legendary -- mobbed like a rock star on the streets of Norway -- Eric Heiden knows one of his first incredulous interrogations will always be: "Is it true that your coach is a woman?"

"To them," says Heiden, "it's the equivalent of the Pittsburgh Steelers being coached by a cheerleader."

"I get blombarded in Europe," says Holum, "I'm the only woman in a man's world. It stuns them. They just stare at me."

Holum could care less if she accepted, loved or hated. Her oblivousness is sublime, her single-mindedness chiling. Holum's narrow, concentrated face, with her hair hanging like blinders beside her eyes, is forceful and charming in a serve, idiosyncratic way.

"I coached for seven years for no pay," says the 28-year-old Holum, who discovered the Heidens in Madison youth skating programs when Eric was 13. "It was a work of love. I realized that coaching requires an eye -- and years."

Holum's theories on spending the majority of a year's training away from the ice are radical, but simple. "We have made our disadvantages (in lack of rink facilities) into advantages. A skater's enemy is boredom.The Europeans are tired before the World Championships arrive."

Other countries get on the ice in early August. America greets West Allis, which is a public camp ground in summer, in late October. "Sometimes I can hardly remember what ice is like," jokes Beth Heiden.

During most of the year, Holum's skaters can be found on dry land -- cycling, running, playing soccer, swimming and enduring a universe of calisthenics invented by Holum.

The Heidens have concocted a mini-gym below and to the rear of the kitchen in their parents' big suburban Madison home, complete with slideboards, gymastic rings, medicine balls and weight belts.

When Heiden finishes his indoor workout, he goes to a nearby park where he has made his own 200-yard dirt oval, a track where he can exactly duplicate the steps -- the pushes in the straights, the digging in the corners -- of a 400-meter rink.

In the duck-walk position, Heiden races around this oval at full running speed, firing his legs behind him like some enraged turtle gone mad, Heiden does 25 laps without stopping.

"Any sport helps a skater," says Holum. "Contrast that with swimmers. They're burned out young. In the water, they can't even talk. When they're out of the water, the coach is usually yelling at them."

Holum's training is the absolute opposite. Her skaters always talk, always joke, always tease, always have fun. In temperament, they seem like surfers on ice. Just as surfers prize their ancient autos called "woodies," so these skaters compete to see whose "beater" car can be closest to a total wreck on wheels.

On a blistering summer day, Holum's troop will end a five-mile run by flopping in an apple orchard while Holum, a bandana around her head, collects flowers or wild mushrooms.

Holum would never scream at a skater. Yelling would be a trivial emotional lever compared to the deep and subtle gears that Holum must move to have her way. She uses many of the mother's tools -- years of affection, encouragement and psychological nursing, rather than the conventional coach's techniques.

She does so because, in the face of the profound wind-chill cold of 50 degrees below zero, nothing less would work. Holum is a stroker, an egobuilder, a high -priesttess who knows that for all her guilding and goading she can never absolutely protect against the loss of will -- almost a loss of faith -- that haunts them all at times.

Who, every day of the winter, spend hours outside in a skin-tight, paper-thin nylon suit? "Taking off your warmups," says '76 Olympic gold-medalist Sheila Young, "is like jumping in a frozen lake naked."

Profound cold is the dark devil that saps a skater's faith. Frostbite, black toes, white nose, frozen lung and the danger of gangrene are the grist of a speed skater's war stories.

"We've all walked around with black toes," says Eric Heiden. "It's just part of the job. But the worst problem is in another place." And he pulls out a pair of woolen Danish Briefs with a nylon jockey cup.

"The metal plates on the bottom of the skates just suck the heat out of your body," says John Lovell, America's only world-class marathon skater. "I've raced 1,500 meters when the wind-chill factor was 70 below zero. When they got me back inside, I was in the fetal position shaking for half-an-hour."

If all good skates must have an edge, so must they also have the proper rock.

Every skate blade is flatter or rounder than another in heel-to-toe curvature. That degree of curvature, which can be changed according to the nature of the race, is called the rock -- the very subtle degree to which a skater can rock back and forth as he stands on his skates.

If Holum is the Heidens' source of competitive edge, their grinding stone, then the young champions need only look to their parents to identify their rock -- their fundamental setting.

All speed skaters must " change their rock" depending on the distance of the race. But, in a sense, the Heidens never do.

"Eric and Beth have had the perfect pedigree," says Mueller.

Nancy Heiden, daughter of the University of Wisconsin's former hockey coach, is still a ranked tennis player in the state. Her husband, a surgeon, remains one of the leading age-group cyclists in the country -- state senior champion in '79 and second nationally in his class.

"My memories of growing up won't be so much of talking together, but that we were always doing something together," Beth says. "Skiing, backpacking or taking canoe trips with our grandparents."

"We've always felt that if you're going to have children, you're no longer the center of things anymore," Nancy says. "Why have a family if you're not going to do things together?

"The outdoors has always been our love. Perhaps Madison develops that kind of attitude. People here are conscious that they are part of an aerobic community, sort of a neighborhood bio-dynamics lab. Our whole local society is pitched that way."

The step from outdoors folk to Olympians, however, has been gigantic, one which all the Heidens view with an ambivalence bordering on revulsion.

Eric, Beth and their parents will talk publicly, but not often. The Heidens plan to make some bucks off their notoriety, but hardly a fraction of what they could.

"Others may be open; our family is closed," says Nancy, who has been aggravated so often by European paparazzi-style journalists that she, for shock value, sometimes curses the interlopers in her children's lives.

"I don't enjoy having a public identity," Eric says. "What Mark Spitz and Bruce Jenner did turns me off. It kind of ruins what they did. The Olympics are not just some career step you take so that you can be exploited."

"Maybe we don't thrive on attention as much as we should," Beth says, "but I feel sorry for athletes who are national heroes."

The slow blossoming of Eric and Beth as skaters was a process that was initially enjoyed for its own sake. At the '76 Olympics, Eric's highest finish was seventh and Beth's best was 11th.

Their emergence as champions was a surprise, not the culmination of some inexorable family-plotted progression.

"In skating, becoming good is a long process that takes years," Leah Poulos Mueller says. "Compared to that, the last step to greatness, which is a big jump, almost always seems to come overnight. It was that way for both Eric and Beth."

"It galls us all that people assume we've raised our children with the sole thought of winning gold medals," Nancy Heiden says.

"A child isn't born into the crib with an Olympic dream, the way ABC-TV would have you believe. It makes me sick to see how Olympic the athletes are presented to the public: 'He's been dreaming of this every day for years.'

"That's bizarre. And it's pathetic," she says. "Do we really want to idolize people that one-dimensional?

"Our children have grown up on the same street with a Nobel Prize-winner and the heads of departments at the university. They're not impressed by the word 'Olympics' or by themselves.

"All this flag-waving about winning for the U.S.A. is a little strange to us after the total lack of support America gives its athletes," Nancy says.

Yet the saddest quality in many Olympic athletes is the pervasive sense that, as they receive their medals, they have come to the end of a childish, joyous and futureless passion, one which may derail the rest of their lives.

"I think that's one of the best things about this," Nancy says. "It should be futureless, absolutely futureless. There better be more to life than being an ex-champion cutting ceremonial ribbons."

So even at the Heidens prepared to capture the world, they prepared to escape from their sport.

"Fame's okay for a while," says Eric. "But right now, I think it's nice the way skating is in America" -- that is, unknown.

"Short-range, I guess I'll probably be a famous face for a year or so. But long-range, I assume I'll be forgotten pretty quickly, except maybe around Madison.

"That's the way I'd prefer it."

The Heidens have quick and anchored answers to questions about their futures. Both will retire skating. Both plan on graduate school -- Eric is pre-med; Beth wants to be a civil engineer and build bridges.

Beth is mastering her fourth foreign language, while Eric is attacking Norwegian, "so I can talk to my girlfriend Cecilia in Oslo."

Both tease each other about the '84 Olympics, when they might reappear in less arduous and less densely competitive sports.

"We're already thinking beyond the Olympics," Nancy Heiden says. "I expect we'll just dive into something else. That's always been our way."

"We're all mapping out our family canoe trip through Canada after the Olympics," whispers Beth."We're not telling anybody where we're going."

No longer will Eric and Beth be in the supreme state of sustained athletic perfection, when they are both superhuman and subhuman -- part mystic, part animal. Canoe trips will replace frostbite as they explore a new and larger map -- one on which speed skating can hardly be found, a tiny dot called West Allis.

Their rock is set. As it has always been. CAPTION: Picture 1, Eric Heiden; Copyright (c) Phillip Leonian 1979 for Champion International Corp.; Picture 2, Beth Heiden, by Royden Hobson.; Picture 3, Firming up his 29-inch thighs: Pared to a volatile essence of muscle. If Eric flexed too fast, he might explode.; Picture 4 and 5, Beth (top): A tiny hank of nerves, skin, bone, long blowing hair -- and brain: Defying the speed skating laws of physics. Dianne Holum: Even mystics must have a master.; Picture 6, "Eric would try anything in this world if it caught his fancy." Royden Hubson